Profiling multi-faceted woman of substance, PARUL S MEHTA
In a candid chat with Citadel, PARUL S MEHTA - successful entrepreneur, social worker and art connoisseur - reveals her passion to contribute to society and the 10th Anniversary of her brainchild, the YELLOW RIBBON NGO FAIR.
Give us a glimpse into your childhood and adolescent years. What were the major influences/incidents that have helped shape you into the compassionate and determined woman you are today?
My initial years were spent in the city of Mumbai, completing my graduation in Commerce from Podar College, Mumbai University. With an inherent interest for art and music, which have fascinated me all along, I pursued a BA in Sitar from Prayag Sangeet Samiti, Allahabad. With a continual quest for learning and being fortunate to receive the support of my family, as in both paternal and my in-laws, and most importantly my husband and children, who always encouraged me, I have completed several noteworthy courses from reputed institutions like Nirmala Niketan, Harvard Business School (where I completed the ‘Authentic Leadership Development Program’), INSEAD (where I was part of a seminar on ‘Women on Boards’ organized by ICICI Bank), and The Business School for the World Fountaine Bleau, France.
Growing up, what were your dreams, aspirations and ambitions?
Life is a journey of many opportunities, where one needs to seize at the opportune moment and build on it. That is what turns dreams into realities and makes aspirations be fulfilled. I have always been intrigued by design and music since my childhood, and was inclined to do something in the creative field. The wish to give back to society was also a dream from a very young age, but I always pondered on how to go about doing so as to ensure impact and effectiveness. I strongly believe that the Universe defines the path when your intentions are good. My dreams turned into reality of being able to give back to society through Ishanya Foundation.
Coming from a privileged background, what drew your attention to the grim realities of the difficult lives led by underprivileged sections of the society?
Born and brought up in an economically sound family, life has been kind enough to provide me with an opportunity whereby I could focus towards betterment of society; something that I was always inclined towards and found solace in. In the early years of my life, especially during my college days, there was always a subtle thought of pursing my interest and dedicating my full attention towards it. But it was this one incident that left a lasting impression on me, and from then on, I was clear that rather than mainstream job, I would follow my heart and focus on improving lives of the underprivileged. It was this one event where I was part of the organizing committee in our college for an eye camp. Amongst the various beneficiaries was a feeble old lady who walked up to me post her cataract operation and in a highly emotional voice mentioned that I was an angel sent by God, and she burst out crying. It had been over a couple of years that she was suffering from cataract but did not have the resources for her treatment.
It was a small incident and just one more initiative among many others that I was already a part of. Several beneficiaries would walk up to us and show their gratitude…but maybe then I was not conscious to the fact of the joy being spread not only to the beneficiary but also to his/her family. But somehow, this time it was different, the joy I experienced seeing the happiness of the old lady truly touched my heart and made me think…there could be thousands more such people who are suffering but do not have appropriate support and resources.
Elucidate on your foray into charitable and social work.
The idea commenced with some charitable work close to the factories in Chindran village around Taloja, Raigad District, Maharashtra. With the support of an able team, we ideated and initiated several income generation programmes. One of the early actions was for the women in the communities in and around Chindran village, where we started tailoring classes. This project enabled them to design and supply items to nearby boutiques, enabling them to earn an income, thereby making them self-reliant. Driven by the success of this initiative, and the underlying thought of enabling livelihood opportunities for financially challenged women to develop their true potential, Ishanya Foundation (IsFon) started its journey in 2006 towards building a self-reliant and selfsustainable society.
Elaborate on your connection with Pune.
My move to Pune was courtesy our family business shifting base, and in hindsight, I feel this move was meant to be, as this gave me the opportunity to follow my dreams of working in the development sector and being able to contribute, and make a difference to those in need. Pune has been home for many years now, where we set up base for Ishanya Foundation, working closely with communities in and around East Pune and near our training centre located in Viman Nagar. I am glad to call Pune home, as it is here that I have met several warmhearted and like-minded individuals and families, who are working for the betterment of our society, of our city. I believe and know that collectively we can all make the difference and bring about the change we all envision to see for that sector of society.
What was your role in the establishment of the Ishanya Foundation - the CSR initiative of DFPCL - in 2006?
Driven by the positive outcomes of the vocational tailoring courses that enhanced the potential skills of women in the communities, empowering them adequately to be self-sustained, Ishanya Foundation (IsFon) commenced its journey in 2006, working on community development with a focus on women empowerment, health and education towards building a self-reliant and selfsustainable society.
Share your vision, as a director on the board of DFPCL, for Ishanya – the company’s retail venture and one of India’s largest specialty destinations?
The company DFPCL and its group companies, its management and employees, are deeply committed towards inclusive growth by touching people’s lives and becoming change initiators. We believe that CSR is a dynamic process, whereby continuous involvement and innovation is required to improve performances over the years and make meaningful contribution. The vision of Ishanya Foundation is aligned with our parent company of acting as an effective catalyst in DFPCL’s geographies of operations in creating a self-reliant and respectable society, with secure means of livelihood, through employable skills and resource support, and additionally to promote and support the rich cultural heritage of India. Through Ishanya and the Ishanya Art & Culture Club (IACC), our rich cultural art forms and heritage are preserved, promoted and protected through a guild of like-minded enthusiasts and the cultural programmes and shows conducted at Ishanya.
Along with your vast industry expertise and knowledge, you have also developed a keen sense of giving back to society. What, in your opinion, is the best way to empower and uplift society? How have your efforts in this area taken shape?
Armed with industry expertise, I have been able to successfully combine a traditional business model with a pressing
social mission in ways that have been helping to transform the lives of the less fortunate. The foundation today works relentlessly towards identifying potential gaps in the economic and social support systems, with special emphasis on youth, women and marginal farmers and providing various initiatives, conducting several outreach programmes in the areas of women empowerment through livelihood programmes, health and education. Besides income generation programmes for underprivileged women and various vocational courses, we also organize several medical camps and other community development initiatives across western India, impacting not just the beneficiaries, but their families too. Last year saw positive outcomes on over 7000 beneficiaries and their families.
The year 2017 marks the tenth year in succession of the Inshanya Foundation organising the Yellow Ribbon NGO Fair (YRNF). How was this unique venture conceptualised and how has it grown in the decade since its inception?
It has been 10 years, and right from inception, Ishanya Foundation has clearly focused on empowering women, enabling them to earn a secondary source of income to enhance their livelihood. The Foundation initiated a programme of recycling old fabric into cloth bags, completely made by underprivileged women through appropriate training. This was a novel idea to protect and safeguard the environment. In time, we added an array of items to our product list and realized that these products were beautifully made, but the women lacked definitive channels to market these products to the right target audience. Many other NGOs also faced a similar situation. After considerable deliberation, we came up with the idea of a Fair that would focus on promoting the NGOs and SHGs, supporting a multitude of causes like cancer patients and physically handicapped children, etc. Thus, the Yellow Ribbon NGO Fair was born, which, in its first year in 2007 had 43 NGOs participating. Over the years, the response has been encouraging and the initiative has been receiving an overwhelming response, prompting us to restrict the number of NGOs and artisans from across India to 120. Having received such encouraging response, there was a need to provide a platform on a similar concept, but which was not restricted to the number of participants or for a limited number of days. The Heart to Hand website followed suit, wherein we were able to collate and come up with a compendium of 200 NGOs across eight cities of India to showcase over 400 products that could be made available all year round. The people of Pune city welcomed this initiative and supported us whole- heartedly. It is because of them that we have been able to continue this initiative for many years now.
What is the spirit of the YRNF? Shed light on the NGOs participating in it and the work they do towards the emancipation of society.
The Yellow Ribbon NGO and Artisan Fair is a platform provided to NGOs, SHGs and artisans across India to showcase and sell the products made as part of their income generation or vocational training programmes, and generate awareness on the causes they support and work on. In addition, these NGOs, SHGs and artisans receive a great opportunity to enhance their communication, marketing and packaging skills. The Yellow Ribbon NGO and Artisan Fair is probably the only fair in our country that provides an opportunity to share best practises and an interaction platform amongst NGOs, SHGs and artisans. Recognizing entrepreneurship abilities is an additional feature of this initiative that has received an overwhelming response year on year from the development sector. Our aim is to create a platform recognition for these NGOs amongst the masses in order to be approached by corporates and individuals at large, and help create self-reliant and self-sufficient youth, pre-dominantly women, farmers and their families. Preservation of dying art forms of artisans is another equally important avenue of focus of The Yellow Ribbon NGO Fair, and hence this flagship event is now known as The Yellow Ribbon NGO and Artisan Fair.
What are the efforts of Ishanya Foundation to encourage participation of more NGOs and to build the morale
and skills of existing participants?
Registered NGOs, SHGs and artisans from across India are encouraged and given the opportunity to participate in the fair. Registration fees are nominal and registration procedures kept minimal, thereby encouraging more NGOs and artisans to participate. Product screening, capacity building workshops for the NGOs participating on communications, packaging and product development have been included as part of the participation procedure, as we at Ishanya Foundation believe that we must enable, encourage and enhance these upcoming NGOs and Artisans.
What is the appeal of the YRNF? What can our readers expect from it in the upcoming years?
Ishanya Foundation, through this flagship initiative of The Yellow Ribbon NGO and Artisan Fair, truly believes to be aligned in line with PM Modi’s vision of ‘Make in India’ and the ‘Skill India Mission’. We request and urge one and all to support us by visiting the fair and shopping from these deserving NGOs and artisans. Our encouragement and support is what will enable them to further their mission and cause to bring about the much-required socioeconomic impact, particularly in rural India.
In an increasingly digitalised world, are there efforts of the Foundation to propel the YRNF on a global level using social media?
We could either be with the times or step off the bus and be left behind. Social media and digitalisation are the means of communication of the new era, and Ishanya Foundation is making all efforts to use social media effectively to move with current times. In our pursuit to maximise awareness on our work and contribution to the development sector, we feel social media will help take us to greater heights of a global level and platform.
Another initiative close to your heart is Muskaan - to empower financially challenged women. How does Muskaan operate?
Over the last three years, Ishanya Foundation
has initiated another unique project named Muskaan to empower financially challenged women. Under this initiative, Ishanya Foundation receives pre-owned garments, clothes and accessories through its ‘Muskaan Brand Ambassadors’ of the city. These products are checked for quality, with those in good condition then sold at affordable prices to underprivileged families in various communities of Pune by 20 ‘Muskaan Parees’, a self-help group of women affiliated with the Foundation.
What drives you to find more and more ways to contribute to society? Where do you find your inspiration and who are your support systems?
Ishanya Foundation and in particular The Yellow Ribbon NGO and Artisan Fair (YRNF), a signature annual event, has had an immense effect on my life. There is no greater pleasure than seeing people succeed and being a contributing factor for it. We are here to provide NGOs and artisans a platform to showcase their products, which they had never thought of. We will enable them reach out to a larger audience. For example, we were the first foundation to approach Yerwada Jail, to let their products be displayed at YRNF. They never imagined this. The pleasure and satisfaction to see talent being appreciated and flourishing is what keeps me going. Personally, it has made me more humble and aware. I have evolved with every year of YRNF. It made me realize the need of the hour. It has been a wonderful learning and gratifying experience.
In between managing a huge business empire and carrying out pioneering social work, you have also taken efforts to pursue your passion for art. The Tilting Art Gallery is doing groundbreaking work in promoting new talent and generating a lot of praise from the art industry.
The Tilting Art Gallery, set up at Ishanya, Pune, was another of my dreams on account of my inherent sense of design, art and aesthetics. This state-of-the-art gallery supports and encourages budding artists to explore their creativity, complemented with training sessions conducted by some of the best names in the industry, and later showcase their art works. Even with our retail establishment, we have become the incubation centre for several upcoming brands that display great potential and passion.
High stress situations, obstacles, long hours and undying efforts are bound to be an inescapable part of the life you have chosen for yourself. What do you do to re-energise and rejuvenate yourself?
Wellness and fitness regimes and also music help me strike a great work-life balance, apart from my daily routine of work and my time with my family. As mentioned earlier, I receive great solace from my work, which is truly gratifying in enabling me to achieve my dream, to be able to contribute to the society.
You do not come across as one who would rest on the laurels of your many accomplishments. What will you be in the news for next?
‘The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more,’ is a Brilliant quote by Jonas Salk, which makes me keep wanting to scale new heights. Our contribution to society so far is just a few drops in the mighty ocean, there is much more to accomplish and many more lives to reach out to. But I am very positive that with my able team, Ishanya Foundation will be able to be a major contributing implementing agency of social change for society, to bring about the change we all envisage for the betterment of our society.
How can our readers emulate from your life, which you have dedicated towards the achievement of excellence and empowerment, and do their own bit towards the betterment of society?
The Universe has a wonderful way of manifesting what you believe to be good and note-worthy. Each of us is here today for a designated purpose, and in our journey of life, as we strive to reach our goals and follow our dreams, let us always be mindful of those less fortunate, and in any small way possible, contribute back to society by being part of established and structured organisations in the development sector. It is this collective action that will be able to bring about social-economic change for those less fortunate, give them reason and hope to live and excel. In return, I assure you that you will be grateful for being bold, and being the change!